Cassini spots tropical methane lakes on Titan

For your next vacation spot, the Saturn Bureau of Tourism would like you to consider the tropics of Titan, where new images from Cassini show extensive dune fields interspersed with shallow methane lakes. Relax, get a tan, and if you're lucky, meet some locals.

It's generally been thought that Titan, one of Saturn's most interesting moons, has a climate that makes for mostly dune fields at the equator with lakes of methane up at the poles, but the latest Cassini images definitely show hydrocarbon lakes down near the equator. This is weird, because the climate on Titan shouldn't support tropical lakes: any surface liquid in that area should evaporate and move up to Titan's poles, where it's cool enough that methane can precipitate out of the atmosphere and form permanent bodies of liquid.

Whatever should or shouldn't be going on with Titan's climate, the fact is that there are tropical lakes there, and now we have to figure out how to explain what's going on. One hypothesis is that Titan has underground hydrocarbon aquifers that continually resupply these tropical lakes, sort of like the way you get oases in the middle of deserts. And just like oases, these lakes and aquifers could be a good place for simple forms of life to be hiding out.

So far, Cassini has imaged about 17% of Titan's surface at a resolution high enough to spot these lakes, and the spacecraft still has several more close imaging passes of Titan ahead in its schedule. This resolution likely won't be high enough to spot any little Titanium critters running around, but hey, maybe we'll get lucky and see one of their lakeside resort towns from orbit.

Nature, via JPL

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